The Long Song (2018) Is Worth the Long Wait


I have no idea why it took so long for The Long Song (2018) to arrive on PBS Masterpiece from the BBC. I’ve been waiting, but it was worth it! This three-part miniseries is based on a novel by Andrea Levy and, while I haven’t read the book, the series was made in conjunction with the author, who seems to feel it reflects her work well, and now I’m adding this on my “to read” list.

The Long Song (2018). Photo credit: BBC Pictures, Heyday Television, Carlos Rodriguez.

Photo credit: BBC Pictures, Heyday Television, Carlos Rodriguez.

The story is set in Jamaica under British colonial rule, focusing on the 1831-32 Christmas Rebellion that helped lead to the abolition of slavery in 1834. The main character is July (Tamara Lawrance), who, as a little girl, is ripped from her mother to become the enslaved maid of Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). Caroline is the plantation owner’s widowed sister, and she renames July as “Marguerite.” An older July voices much of the story as if writing her autobiography, giving this book adaption an appropriately literary feel.

The Long Song (2018)

The Long Song isn’t a typical slave narrative, this is more about the complexities of life after emancipation and how different people, both Black formerly enslaved Jamaicans and white colonialist Britons react to the changes. The plot is at times surprising, harrowing, ridiculous, and moving, and I don’t want to give anything away because over the course of three parts, the story goes some unexpected places. The actors give nuanced performances, and Tamara Lawrance as July is utterly fascinating, while Hayley Atwell’s Caroline is a horrible person, yet just a smidge pitiable. And there are scenes and lines played for laughs, as novelist Andrea Levy noted in the BBC press pack for the show:

“Any character that I write who doesn’t have a sense of humour isn’t quite right. I believe everybody has a sense of humour … certainly if you come from the Caribbean and slavery you had to have a humour to get through it.”

Plus, the costumes by Charlotte Holdich are generally quite good, although only Caroline wears especially fancy clothes. As the mistress of the plantation, she always wears very fashionable 1830s gowns and headgear — though at various points, it’s made obvious that these garments are not suited for the tropical climate. Which they didn’t have to fake, because as producer Rosie Alison said on Broadcast Now about filming in the Dominican Republic:

“It sounds glamorous working in the Caribbean, but for the cast and crew, filming in full costume under the 40°C [104°F] midday sun, it was a challenging and punishing shoot.”

Atwell must have been genuinely sweating in those gigot-sleeved frocks! And while I couldn’t find any interviews with Holdich, I feel like she took a similar angle as Tom Pye did with the costumes in Gentleman Jack (2019) by using the exaggerated 1830s fashions to make the character of Caroline look different and odd and thus very out of place and out of touch with her surroundings.

The Long Song (2018)

From the very start, Caroline wears her fine English fashions.

The Long Song (2018)

All a bit fussy (yep, she has sleeve plumpers under there).

As Hayley Atwell said in Harper’s Bazaar of this character:

“It’s very textbook, I think, that bullying that comes from insecurity and cowardice, and where she tries to assert this authority that she doesn’t really have. I wanted to explore the psychological damage or the damage done to one’s psyche, when that person inflicts damage on someone else you think, ‘I bet she can’t live in her one skin’. She’s crawling in self-loathing.”

The Long Song (2018)

Touring the fields in a vivid pink dress & giant hat.

The Long Song (2018)

Extravagantly gowned for a formal portrait.

July’s costumes go through some changes during the series. Before emancipation, she’s a house slave, and it appears she’s wearing cast-offs because her one dress is in an 1820s or even 1810s style. Once slavery is abolished, she becomes Caroline’s housekeeper and has more of a wardrobe.

The Long Song (2018)

July’s empire-waist gown in the first episode.

The Long Song (2018)

She tries on a hat at Caroline’s dressing table.

The Long Song (2018)

In this scene with July’s mother, Kitty, you can see the inside layer of this printed gown’s drop-front closure.

The Long Song (2018)

After emancipation, July still has at least one empire-waist gown for housework.

The Long Song (2018)

But she has several more gowns that get closer to 1830s shapes, though worn without all the underpinnings since she’s still working.

This blue dress is probably July’s most up to date.

The Long Song (2018). Photo credit: BBC Pictures, Heyday Television, Carlos Rodriguez.

Photo credit: BBC Pictures, Heyday Television, Carlos Rodriguez.

In the BBC press pack, Tamara Lawrance talked about the story’s importance:

“This story is important because British colonial history likes to talk about William Wilberforce and people like that — but before them there were black abolitionists, and the people who were enslaved themselves who were fighting for their own freedom. It is important to recognise that it came from their own dignity and their own recognition of their humanity. I find that amazing.”

“This is world history. It’s not just Jamaican history or a period of time in history — this trade has affected the whole pattern of psychology, economy, industry, education — everything has come from this period of time.”

With the framing of old July (Doña Croll) telling the story, we get little glimpses into her later life, circa 1870s-80s.

The Long Song (2018)

This vivid green gown is so gorgeous!

The Long Song (2018)

The elegant fashions in rich materials show how July’s life has changed at the very end.

Other costumes round out the world where the story’s set. There’s Clara, a quadroon woman who is disdainful of July.

The Long Song (2018)

Clara wears 1830s dresses with a bit of lace, even when she’s enslaved.

The men’s clothes are standard but do show a little of the lively patterns of the period.

The Long Song (2018)

Far right, Nimrod (Jordan Bolger) wears plaid pants & a plaid neck scarf. He’s a free man & quite the dandy.

The Long Song (2018)

The new overseer, Robert (Jack Lowden), wears linen suits appropriate to the climate.



Did you wait around for The Long Song? Have you seen it yet?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

8 Responses

  1. Kathy

    I have not heard of this book or series, nor know much about Jamaican history, but this looks very interesting!

  2. steelyseamstress

    I saw the series when it was released in the UK, and then went and read the book. I enjoyed both immensely. July is a fascinating character and her sense of humour carries you through, what is quite a harrowing story. The costumes were great too, although I have been reading Kassia St Clair’s The Golden Thread, which has a chapter on Cotton and America which has a really interesting section on what slaves in America would have worn. Apparently it was common for slaves to dye and make their own clothes, perhaps the clothes in TV series worn by slaves – all those cast-offs, don’t tell the whole story.

  3. Susan Pola Staples

    This is a series that should be shown to schools teaching students about slavery, emancipation and life afterwards. Ms. Tamara Lawrence, as July, gives a brilliant well crafted, emotional and thoughtful performance which should give her a BAFTA and Emmy nominations. Where has she been and what other things has she done?

  4. Melanie

    I’m not sure I can bear to watch Jack Lowden play a plantation overseer. But this does look quite good.

  5. Nzie

    I’ve seen some ads for this–glad to hear it’s good! I could tell from the ads it was actually focused on the July character and her perspective.

  6. Charity

    It’s amazing how much better Hayley looks in Edwardian or 40s clothing than … this. All of those frills don’t suit her at all. I may check it out, though. I hadn’t realized it had come to PBS yet. :)

  7. Karin

    I watched this when it was on the BBC and enjoyed it a lot. Definitely worth watching!